Ahead of her time

Mary Seacole has now become a national heroine. Yet her biographer Jane Robinson refuses to label her as a 'black Florence Nightingale'. Instead, she celebrates a true Victorian pioneer
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I remember my first meeting with Mary Seacole very clearly. I was researching a book about women travellers, and had spent the day working on a noble but depressing lady called Annie Hore. Annie was sent to Africa by her missionary husband in the 1880s to prove his theory that wheeled vehicles could reach Lake Tanganyika from the Tanganyikan coast.

I remember my first meeting with Mary Seacole very clearly. I was researching a book about women travellers, and had spent the day working on a noble but depressing lady called Annie Hore. Annie was sent to Africa by her missionary husband in the 1880s to prove his theory that wheeled vehicles could reach Lake Tanganyika from the Tanganyikan coast.

Her book piously related how the husband put Annie and their baby into a wicker Bath chair (propelled by porters) by the sea, cheerily waving them off into the virgin jungle; 83 days later she climbed out by the shores of the lake, half dead. Much as I admired her wifely zeal, Annie's meekness irritated me beyond measure. So I was feeling rather jaded as I picked up the next book on my pile. It was Mary Seacole's autobiography.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands was published in 1857. It's bound in bright yellow boards, with scarlet lettering and a portrait of Mary on the front, looking like a cross between Prince Rupert of the Rhine and a black Britannia. She's in military garb, with frogging and epaulettes, wearing a Creole kerchief and an extravagantly feathered hat.

The adventures begin on the first page: "All my life long I have followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing," Mary says, "and so far from resting idle anywhere, I have never wanted inclination to rove, nor will powerful enough to find a way to carry out my wishes." Strong stuff for a Victorian woman, and so different from Annie. I determined then that if ever I wrote a biography, it must be of Mary Seacole.

That work comes out next week. I'm a term-time author now, writing only while the boys are not at home. So when I say I've spent the last three years in the exclusive company of just one woman, it's not strictly true. But Mary and I have become close, and now the book's done, I'm a bit uneasy.

Everyone's talking about her. She topped the Famous Black Britons poll, and a previously unknown painting has been unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. It's the bicentenary of her birth this year, and the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War, which made her famous the first time round. More than famous: a celebrity, despite labouring under multiple imperialist handicaps of being black, female, illegitimate, formally uneducated, "unprotected" (that is, without a male partner for most of her life), and dangerously self-possessed. Maybe I'm just jealous that she's not my secret any more.

Her story is undeniably attractive. She was born in downtown Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, the much-loved but unprivileged daughter of a Scottish officer named Grant and his Creole mistress. Mary's mother was a well-respected "doctress", using the herbal medicines of her African heritage. She also kept a hotel, and Mary inherited the same dual occupations. Many of Mary's patients and guests were members of the British garrison.

She loved the British Army and was always proud of her links with it, but Kingston soon became too small. Mary, instinctively adventurous, cadged a lift to London on a merchant ship while still in her teens. In her twenties she travelled widely, and alone, taking pickles and preserves she'd cooked in the hotel kitchen for currency.

In 1836, in Jamaica, Mary married an Englishman named Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, and - for a while - stayed put. There's a sensational conviction among Seacole descendants that Edwin was not (as Mary tells us) the godson of Lord Nelson, but his second child by Emma, Lady Hamilton. It's a delicious possibility, and would certainly appeal to Mary's sense of drama.

Edwin died in 1844, and after a few years running the hotel and honing her nursing skills during outbreaks of yellow fever in Kingston, Mary embarked on the travels that occupied the rest of her life.

First she went to Panama to open another hotel while en route to the California goldfields. When cholera broke out there she became fascinated by the disease, even performing a secret post-mortem on one of its victims. In 1854, Mary heard about the Crimean War. Her response was immediate; she must go to her "sons" in the British Army - many of whom she had known in Kingston - and look after them while they won the war.

Her plan was to apply to the War Office in London for sponsorship or, if they couldn't help, to this Miss Nightingale she'd heard about. Mary considered herself eminently qualified: she was familiar with the military, strong, resilient, well travelled, a fierce patriot, and - crucially - experienced in nursing. But she was also black, old (nearly 50), fat (she preferred to call it comfortably plump), loud and highly opinionated, and wore vulgar, parrot-bright dresses. No chance.

Stunned by rejection, which she understandably ascribed to colour prejudice, Mary determined to finance herself, miraculously finding a business partner to back her outrageous scheme of opening a hotel just behind the lines. Six months later, the British Hotel, between Balaclava and Sebastopol, was up and running. It quickly became a Crimean institution.

So did Mary. Returning to London after the war, she was affectionately called "Mother Seacole" for the cheerful comfort she'd given the men, feeding them, tending to their wounds and illnesses, and always ready with a joke and an extremely un-British hug for anyone in need, from generals down. Her book was a roaring success, and a pension assured a comfortable - though busy - old age. When she died in 1881, she was mourned by hundreds, from her extensive family in Jamaica to those members of the Royal Family in London who had cultivated the friendship of this warm, charismatic woman. Then - celebrity being what it is - she was promptly forgotten.

Since the 1980s, however, her star's been slowly ascending again. She's becoming an icon. And if I'm honest, that's why I feel uneasy now. Of course I miss her company, but it's not as though I ever really had her to myself. Perhaps I do feel a little jealous in letting her go, but it's only temporary. Biographers are serial monogamists, and I've already found somebody else.

The problem is that Mary's being appropriated by too many different factions. Yes, she's a significant figure in black history; she was a feisty, independent woman; she was a pioneer nurse-practitioner; she wrote a best-seller. But she was no freedom fighter, no feminist, and she never claimed to be a medical or literary pioneer. Most of all, she was not the "black Nightingale" so many have dubbed her, and neither she nor her peer Florence need defining in terms - and at the expense - of each other.

As her biographer, I've come to realise that Mary Seacole's greatest gifts were her own idiosyncrasy, integrity and self-belief. She refused to be constrained by other people's preconceptions during her lifetime; long may that last.

'Mary Seacole: the charismatic black nurse who became a heroine of the Crimea' by Jane Robinson is published by Constable on 27 January (£12.99)